A stark race gap - in kids' books

As more African-Americans get published, educators ask: Might their tales raise the reading skills of black students?

The girls in the sixth-grade at New York's Manhattan School for Children fell hard for Bobby. They fell so hard, in fact, that author Angela Johnson decided to pluck the doting teenage father and his daughter, Feather, from her 1998 book "Heaven" and cast them as the central characters in a later novel. She dedicated "The First Part Last," published in 2003, to that 1999-2000 sixth-grade class.

They weren't the only ones taken with "Heaven." A young girl walked into a book-signing in Columbus, Ohio, last fall, clutching a battered copy of the book. She threw her arms around Ms. Johnson, then ran off in tears, without ever uttering a word.

"More than likely it was her story," says Johnson. "She didn't stay to fill me in, but I sort of got through the bookstore owner that she had been through tough times."

It's only been in the last decade or so that African-American children and teenagers have been able to see their experiences carefully rendered in books by African-American authors.

Before the explosion of multicultural children's literature in the early '90s, books by black authors with black protagonists were largely missing from the canon - absent from bookstores and school reading curricula.

While few educators would suggest that this vacancy has contributed to the achievement gap - that stubborn performance divide between black students and their white counterparts - anecdotal evidence suggests that these books may be inspiring more black children to read, and perhaps helping to redress the pernicious divide.

Just 12 percent of African-American fourth-graders were reading at grade level in 2000, compared with 40 percent of their white peers, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

If nothing else, African-American children's books are capturing the imaginations of black children. And they are engaging their classmates - black, white, Latino, Asian - by throwing open a window onto previously untold stories.

"I've had students in class become more excited about reading when they happen to read a book that reflects their own experiences," says Nancy Livingston, a fifth-grade teacher at Littlebrook School in Princeton, N.J. "I find them coming to me for more books by that author."

The majority of Ms. Livingston's students are white. But she likes to remind all her pupils that growing up, she "never, ever read a book with an African-American character."

That didn't stop her from developing a love of reading, but she can imagine how it might have affected a more reluctant reader, one struggling to find a place in the world of books.

"This invisibility in literature had at least the potential to make kids feel as if literature were something that was outside them," says Rudine Sims Bishop, professor emerita at Ohio State University's School of Teaching and Learning, whose specialty is African-American children's literature.

As a doctoral student, Professor Bishop took part in research on children who spoke stable American dialects. In places such as Maine and Texas, which retained the distinctiveness of the dialect, children were asked to read two stories. One, they all read. The other was culturally relevant to their individual lives - either through setting or subject matter. The finding? The children better understood the culturally relevant story. This may imply that "relevance can make a difference in kids' achievement," says Bishop.

Without more evidence, she is hesitant to draw a causal link between cultural relevance and reading achievement. But anecdotal research suggests that "finding themselves in books will motivate kids, and will have a positive effect on their attitude toward reading," she adds.

Whatever part these books play in promoting reading, many say their role is just as important in helping black children to develop self-worth and a firm feel for their place in history.

Bishop and Peggy McIntosh, codirector of the National SEED (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity) Project on Inclusive Curriculum, each says this literature serves both as a mirror and as a window.

All children "need to have the book as mirror - to mirror their physical self, their lives, and family experiences," says Bishop. "But they also need the window - the book that takes them into other worlds, that expands their horizons."

At the same time, educators note children's capacity to appreciate fantasy, to escape into books far beyond their own realities. "There's not any child in the US who can really relate to the educational experience that Harry Potter has at Hogwarts," Cecilia Minden-Cupp, director of the Language and Literacy Program at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, says of the wildly popular series. "It doesn't always have to be a mirror."

The history of children's literature is inextricably tied to the marketplace. In the 18th and 19th centuries, books were written about white children because theirs were the families who could afford them.

Though access still lags, the demand by black families has certainly demonstrated a broader market.

At the African-American Hue-Man Bookstore in New York's Harlem, which stocks more than 16,000 titles, children's books account for 30 percent of sales.

The tide toward mainstream inclusion of black characters began to shift in the 1970s, when an African-American family moved into the neighborhood in the "Dick and Jane" readers. But stories about children of color were still penned primarily by white authors.

There have always been standouts - Virginia Hamilton, whose first book, "Zeely," was published in 1967, and Eloise Greenfield, known for her poetry. Major publishing houses, though, did not begin to seek out African-American writers until the late '80s and early '90s. In 1985, just 18 books, of the 2,500 children's titles published, were by black authors and illustrators, according to the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In 2003, 79 of 5,000 books were by African or African-American authors.

When the first Coretta Scott King Award - the highest honor for children's books by and about African-Americans - was granted to Lillie Patterson in 1970, only four books were considered. For 2004, the committee chose among 80 before selecting Johnson's "The First Part Last."

"There's a universal thread that cuts through all of this stuff," says Wade Hudson, cofounder of Just Us Books, a publishing house dedicated to African- American children's books. "But to deny the fact that we come from different cultures is a problem, too. We can recognize that we come from different cultures, ... and at the same time recognize that ultimately we come from the same family."

Johnson, for her part, says she doesn't write with a particular audience in mind, nor feel that she must address certain themes. "A good story is a good story," she says. "If you are true to your craft ... an African-American kid in Chicago should be able to pick up the same book that a kid in Utah is reading."

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